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Using our national flag to defend a rapist

In India, defacing, disfiguring and insulting our national flag is a criminal offence; the punishment includes a jail sentence or a fine or both. Of late, we police our patriotism and codify our nationalism and use loose labels like ‘anti-national’ even in the course of routine disagreements. This reductionism has unfortunately become the new normal.
So in this age of outrage and competitive nationalism, where is our anger over how the tricolour was desecrated and debased by being used at a rally for a man accused of rape and murder in Jammu’s Kathua district? An eight-year-old girl from the shepherd Bakerwal community, who was abducted, sexually abused and killed — her father says the body came back with burn marks, visible signs of torture and genital mutilation — deserves just as much of our empathy and rage as the 2012 Delhi gang rape victim did.
The state police arrested a special police officer (SPO) by the name of Deepak Khajuria as the main accused in the case. But a self-styled Right-wing group called Hindu Ekta Manch has stood up in favour of Khajuria; its street agitation to free him saw the flag being held by protesters, as well as loud chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.
If this isn’t a subversion of nationalism, what is? Yet, where are all the patriots? Where are those crusaders who file criminal cases when someone even inadvertently holds the flag upside down? Or wear the flag on their shirt or dress? Remember police action against fashion designer Malini Ramani when she wore a flag dress? What is worse: wearing the flag colours with affection on your clothes or using the tricolour and patriotic slogans as a cloak for hatred and bigotry? Our prime time debates are so stacked up with instant judgement and hysterical hashtags usually. Where are the nationalist television anchors suddenly hiding? Why isn’t someone tweeting that the Hindu Ekta Manch should #GoToPakistan — that favourite Twitter inanity meant for those who fail to pass the patriotism exam?
Not only has our flag been debased by the Hindu Ekta Manch, but the uniform has also been insulted. The Jammu and Kashmir police are the bravest, most extraordinary force in India — its officers are most vulnerable to terror attacks — and yet they are often vilified by hardliners in their own community. By choosing to defend SPOs charged with rape and murder, this shameful group of extremists has demeaned and undermined the dauntless officers who stand for sacrifice and courage.
Generally speaking, I don’t like using the phrase ‘anti-national’ in casual conversation. To me, its commonplace use signals the end of debate and free thinking in our public discourse. But if ever I were to use it in a column, I would use it for the Hindu Ekta Manch. What else can you call people who communalise the rape of a child? What else can you call those who turn the grave of a girl into a metaphorical gladiatorial battle between Hindus and Muslims? What else should you say of those who want to widen the gap between the regions of Jammu and Kashmir — a division that can only hurt India’s national and strategic interests? Which other word can you use for those who call for the social boycott of the Gujjar-Bakerwal nomad community (a Muslim minority in that area) merely for demanding justice for one of their own children?
I’m glad to see chief minister Mehbooba Mufti pulling no punches in saying how “appalled” she was to see the Indian flag being used as an instrument of support for an apprehended rapist. The BJP has distanced itself from the Hindu Ekta Manch whose leader Vijay Sharma was its Kathua district president from 2013-2015. I hope the party — that defines its self- mage using muscular nationalism — will also see Sharma as treacherous in the deepest sense of the word.
I would argue that after this ugliness, all politicians — mainstream parties as well as Right-wing groups in Jammu and separatists groups in the Valley — should keep their distance from this sensitive case. This is no time for point-scoring or political sloganeering. In the past divisions like these have only magnified the differences within the state and pitted two religions and communities against each other.
And we cannot forget that in the end this is about a young girl who took her ponies to graze near a village pond when she was kidnapped, drugged, brutalised and dumped in the thick of the forest. She was a child.
She could have been our child. We should speak up for her and demand justice. That is what our flag stands for.